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Medicines Co. deal caps pharma’s reentry into field it once abandoned

Novartis’ nearly $10 billion buyout of The Medicines Company caps a dramatic revival of fortunes for a research field large pharmaceutical companies once spurned.

Over the past year, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Regeneron, Roche, Novo Nordisk and now Novartis have inked deals to gain access to drugs based around a technology called RNA interference, or RNAi.

Such interest from big pharma contrasts sharply with that of nearly a decade ago, when Novartis and fellow Swiss drugmaker Roche unexpectedly pulled back from efforts to transform the Nobel Prize-winning science describing RNAi into medicines.

“Clearly in the early part of this decade, we saw a major shift away from the field,” said John Maraganore, CEO of RNAi-focused Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, in an interview. “Starting in 2014 with our Sanofi deal and lately other deals, including this acquisition of Medicines Co. from Novartis, we’ve seen pharma come back.”

“RNAi has got its sexy back,” added Maraganore, who has led Alnylam since 2002 through RNAi’s initial boom, retreat and current resurgence.

Alnylam’s work has resulted in the first two RNAi drug approvals, first with Onpattro last year and then with Givlaari last week. Medicines Co.’s acquisition is, in part, a reflection on Alnylam, too: The drug at the center of the deal, inclisiran, was discovered by Alnylam and licensed to Medicines Co. in 2013.

Other RNAi companies like Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals and Dicerna Pharmaceuticals are also enjoying pharma’s renewed interest in the space, and both have recently partnered with larger drugmakers.

“We believe last week reflected an inflection point for RNAi as a drug technology, and we believe [Medicines Co.]’s acquisition by [Novartis] is potentially the start of a broader wave of consolidation for the drug class,” wrote Baird’s Madhu Kumar in a Nov. 25 note to investors.